Closing shop…and moving across town

Readers, family, & friends!

I’ve decided to consolidate my travel blog and my OTHER blog. Instead of having two different blogs that I love dearly, I will now have one blog that I love immensely. From now on, all of my writing can be found here: The Astromaid Chronicles.

Be sure to update your bookmarks, as I will no longer be updating this blog. It may even disappear at some point. Oh, the horror!

But don’t worry! All of my travel stories, musings, and general ramblings will still be on display for general consumption, located at the link above.

Thanks for reading…and I’ll see you on the other side of the internet!

(Did you bookmark it? It’s here: The Astromaid Chronicles!)

An Open Letter to That Rhesus Monkey

Yesterday you and I crossed paths. Do you remember?

I was the blonde woman, from a different land where there aren’t crazed primates running around. I sat on the bench, bathing in the rich afternoon sun, as you so arrogantly entered the scene.

I watched as you swooped down from above – from a tree? From the side of the building? From inside a worm hole where all the other thief monkeys come from, traveling space and time to harass the innocent humans of Earth? I can’t ever know. But you came, and you came on a mission.

It all happened so fast – one minute I’m sitting there writing in my journal, the next second you’re there and the people around are shrieking and yelling at you. And you just lope around like King Kong, your long, hairy monkey face the epitome of detached sociopath, and then you disappear as quickly as you arrived.

Except, you didn’t leave empty handed.

You left with that woman’s chapati.

Chapati -- unleavened Indian flat bread. Monkeys apparently love it.

Chapatti — unleavened Indian flat bread. Monkeys apparently love it. [Photo Credit: http://www.dishmaps.com]

I think this is really rude, okay? This lady works here, at this ashram, and puts in long hours cleaning up after people who stay in the place. I’ve seen her sweeping the steps with a wicker broom; I’ve seen her lugging piles of sheets around.

And then when I saw you, she was just sitting out in the sun, in the garden, enjoying her damn lunch. Relaxing. Resting. Gearing up for the second half of her day.

In the Human world, it is extremely mean-spirited to walk up to a stranger and take their food without asking. In some areas, people would call the police, so you’re really lucky there isn’t a faction of Monkey Police designed to kidnap street creeps like you.

I really thought you might know this by now. After, you know, sharing living space with humans for so long. After spying on us for so long from high-up places. After being our literal ancestors.

But no. You didn’t even ask her — you just ran off with her fucking chapati. You bitch.

When things had calmed down, and the woman had resumed eating – probably thinking the worst of it was over now that you had staked your claim — you returned.

And this time, you moved brazenly in front of me and my friend, closer to me than any monkey has come before without the protective shield of  a glass wall or wire cage. I could have reached out and touched you, if that could ever be considered a good idea. You even walked over my friend’s new shawl, the iridescent one she had just bought earlier that day, with your creepy monkey paws.

I see you and your cousins scrounging in the trash. I see you guys stealing scraps left for the hindu god statues. I know what you do.

Dry cleaning isn’t cheap around here, you know. These statues don’t feed themselves, you know.

Point is, you came back. And this time, the woman just threw the rest of the chapati at you, a desperate offer in hopes that she might avoid further harassment – because you’re a bully, monkey.

You’re just a bully.

You absconded yet again with your steal. And I, unwilling to witness anymore of this type of behavior, stood and I left.

Because if you will steal a piece of chapati from the hands of an innocent, resting worker, what else are you capable of?

I’ve been here long enough to glimpse your true character, monkey.

Rhesus Macaque

Sure, your babies are cute. Sure, your asses are red and weird and sort of a novelty. Sure, you’re just monkeys.

But the other morning when I saw your friend/cousin/brother perched high above the street, shaking a street sign for all it was worth as he shrieked into the still morning air…I had to ask myself, What are you getting at, monkey?

I’m beginning to see, not much at all.

 

Signed,

Disappointed in Rishikesh

When Rickshaws Break Down in Traffic

Driving around Delhi doesn’t leave much time for introspection or idle hands. Really, driving through Delhi at any hour, of any day, involves a fair amount of white-knuckled seat-grabbing, fervent prayers to God Of Choice, and teeth clenching as your vehicle/taxi/rickshaw comes thatclose to sideswiping a bus/demolishing several pedestrians/delivering you to an inevitable death.

I returned to Delhi after nearly three weeks in a tranquil and slow-paced Rishikesh. I was hesitant to make this return, however inevitable it was for me boarding my return flight to the USA, because I knew the brash and noisy clamor of Delhi would be an even harsher wake-up call after so much time spent in yoga practice and reflection.

My overnight train from Hardiwar arrived only three hours late to a Delhi that looked to be in throes of a monsoon. The road outside the train station had become a literal lake, water sloshing so high that I feared engines would be watered down and all manner of transport would be carried away like bobbing buoys in a lake.

A friendly man from my train cabin helped me negotiate fares with taxi drivers who not only wanted to upcharge me for being foreign and white, but also because of the rain. Once the price was settled, a rickshaw-van of sorts rumbled up through the miniature lake, smoke pouring out of the side. I looked at the man who had helped me negotiate the price, laughed, and said, “Wow, it’s really smoking, huh?”

He laughed too. “No, I think it’s on fire.”

Well, that’s always a relief before you’re about to be carried off alone into the depths of Delhi.

But still, I boarded, because it’s Delhi, and these guys know their rickshaws better than anything else (I’d assume), and it was my only way out of the train station other than making a boat with my own hands. We rumbled off through the dirty Delhi water, joining traffic hesitantly.

The engine sputtered and burped and groaned as the driver joined the careening traffic of the highway. Once we got on our way, the engine seemed to have resolved most of its existential questions and we puttered along safely, resolutely. The smell of burning was mostly gone and the only smoking I could see was from the driver’s own cigarette. Score!

But then about fifteen minutes into the voyage, something happened. The rickshaw-van slowed, despite the way the driver pumped the pedal.

Probably just a rickshaw quirk, I reasoned. Probably has nothing to do with the smoke pouring out of the engine earlier.

His expression grew more quizzical as he continued to pump the pedal. The rickshaw slowed more, which made the careening traffic around us an ever crazier and fast-paced blur.

He worked the pedal harder, but the vehicle never responded.

Then the rickshaw sputtered to a complete and undeniable stop.

The driver, unfazed and non-reactive, tried to start the engine. It came to life, but before we even moved a few feet the engine fizzled. Traffic continued to honk and zoom beyond.

Rinse and repeat about seven times.

From here, the driver tried to turn the engine a handful of times more but all that resulted were harsh mechanical groans that yielded nothing.

Despite having been raised by a vehicle enthusiast and general car mechanic, I don’t know much about cars. Even still, I knew that this rickshaw van wasn’t going to turn on again, no matter how many times he tried to start it.

I was stuck somewhere in Delhi in a non-functioning rickshaw with one massive language barrier and no idea how to get where I was going other than “Saket”.

The driver entered the back part of the van and opened the floor, which provided a direct view of the engine. Everything was gritty and gray; pure petrified vehicle dust and ancient layers of engine grime. He poked helplessly at some tubes and wires, each time running back to the front seat to try to start the van. It never worked.

And then he went around to the passenger’s side of the car, took the seat off, began poking at another part of the engine revealed there.

No luck.

So then he took out the driver’s side seat, and poked at the revealed engine parts there.

Still no luck.

Finally, after a solid quarter hour of fruitless attempts and unhelpful engine poking, he took out his phone and called someone.

The only explanation I got was “five minutes”, which for some reason I interpreted as him leaving me and the entire van for five minutes to go somewhere, like to get a part, or find a friend, or tag out a waiting rickshaw van in what I assumed must be a complex network of rickshaw support.

He must have seen the horrified look on my face as I contemplated being left alone in a van that didn’t even lock in the middle of an Indian highway, with all of my belongings piled around me in the middle of a monsoon. The driver repeated it again – “just five minutes” – and climbed back into the front seat. Phew.

Now it was time to wait. I figured five minutes was an optimistic estimate of whenever help or replacement rickshaws would be arriving, since traversing the entirety of Delhi can sometimes take over two hours – and that’s not even in a rainstorm.

Worrying and speculation didn’t seem to be helpful courses of action, since the bulk of this situation was firmly out of my control. I knew I would get to my destination, eventually. So my only real decision, at this point, was how to while away the time?

So I trimmed my cuticles. All of them. I gave myself half of a manicure while I waited in the backseat, rainwater dripping onto my knee through the broken window, the driver sucking on a strange Indian cigarette as he appraised the gray Delhi day beyond.

Traffic swarmed and hissed past us. Alternating honks and gear shifting provided a constant soundtrack to the rickshaw manicure.

In addition to not worrying or speculating, I also thought it might be prudent to not think about the possibility of any of the traffic connecting with the backside of the rickshaw van.

After my forays into the overgrowth of the Himalayan foothills and the existential desperation this provided, I knew that worrying about my untimely demise wasn’t the best use of time, no matter how much the statistical chance of such an occurrence had skyrocketed now that I was stranded in traffic on an Indian highway.

So I clipped and snipped my cuticles until they smiled back at me, preened and prim. And after about twenty minutes, another rickshaw van rumbled up. No smoke, no sputtering engine. I was ushered inside, the monsoon now a mere drizzle, and we continued along our way into the immense labyrinth of Delhi.

A furtive shot from inside the replacement rickshaw van. Cuticles trimmed. Drivers gesticulating at traffic. All is well.

A furtive shot from inside the replacement rickshaw van. Cuticles trimmed. Drivers gesticulating at traffic. All is well.

The Enraged Beeping of the E-Word

During Heather’s first full day in Rishikesh, I had planned a mini-excursion to the famous ‘Beatles Ashram’ with a couple friends I’d made while in town. The day was bright and hot, perfect for a mid-day hike into the forests of the Himalayan foothills.

The ashram sat less than a ten-minute walk from Parmarth Niketan, which provided a pleasant sunny walk full of interesting conversations as we made our way to the gates of the legendary place.

The ‘Beatles Ashram’ is no longer operational, and has since been taken over by wild overgrowth of the Himalayan jungle. Even still, a ‘guard’ sits at the gate to demand an entry fee. This person is not hired or paid by the state, and from what I’ve heard, is simply a sadhu (or otherwise) who sits at the entrance to demand bribe money to be let into the complex.

We paid the equivalent of 100 rupees, or roughly $1.50, per person to get past the gates. According to other travelers, there is a way to get inside without bribe money, but it involves hiking a bit and scaling walls, both of which are activities I’m happy to bypass in exchange for only $1.50 USD.

Once inside, the true splendor of the ashram could be felt, despite the overgrowth and the abandonment. Stone paths arched up into the depths of the establishment, lined with dense foliage. Interesting tee-pee huts made of stone dotted the sidelines as we walked further. Without a guide or any real information about the arena other than “the Beatles were here”, we were left to speculate and wonder about what much of the buildings had been previously used for.

Climbing the path, deeper in to the ashram...

Climbing the path, deeper in to the ashram…

Inside a strange, decrepit building, with ancient exposed wires hanging from the ceiling and cement walls in every stage of disrepair, I whipped out my cellphone to share a tidbit of interesting information I’d opened earlier about the general history of the Beatles’ involvement at the ashram. After a theatrical presentation about the fallout between John Lennon and the guru in residence at the time, the talk turned to an interesting tidbit included at the end of the TripAdvisor summary.

That of the wild tigers, monkeys, and elephants that can sometimes be found mingling amongst the foliage of the ashram.

Huddling in a small circle around the exposed wires in the ceiling of the building, our conversation took a turn for the fascinating and horrifying. With all the feel of a group of kids sharing stories over a campfire, my companions took turns telling tales about things they’d heard regarding the wildlife.

About the large number of tigers and elephants that are found roaming freely through the grounds of the ashram.

About the way tigers aren’t the dangerous ones, it’s actually the elephants to be afraid of.

About how elephants never forget and their long history of poor interactions with humans had led to something of a grudge being held against us all. Regardless of our intents.

About the tourist that had been squashed to death by an elephant only the week before. Within the very walls of the ashram we were currently visiting.

“Well,” I squeaked, my good mood disappearing as quickly as water droplets in the sun, “if we ran into an elephant we could take refuge in a place like this, right?” I gestured around us. Fear began uncoiling, hot and malicious, through the limbs of my body.

“Not really,” was the response. “An elephant could easily knock down the walls and attack anyway.”

Well great. We had officially entered elephant-tiger-and-monkey’s den with literally nowhere to hide.

The only thing that we could rely on was luck. Or maybe a lack thereof.

When finally we decided to stop talking about all the horrifying things that could happen at the hands of wild animals that may or may not have been stalking us since we set foot inside the ashram, I emerged shaky and watchful from the building.

I had never even considered that a surprise encounter with an elephant would be on the agenda for this bright and sunny day. I had never imagined that the terrors could go so far beyond that of monkeys tapping at my window at night.

The visit to the ashram from there on was tinged with a distinct sense of dread. Maybe this was how it would all end, I thought – coming face to face with an elephant after rounding a corner, meeting it’s enraged gaze, and finding my final breath under its wide, unrelenting foot.

I could already imagine the fodder this might provide for my hometown newspaper (“Ohio Girls Stepped On By Elephant in India, Nobody Saw It Coming”). I thought of all the things I had yet to do with my life – all the children I wanted to bear, all the summers I had left to spend with my family in Ohio, all the years left to live out at the side of my partner.

What if that was all wiped out by one enraged elephant in Rishikesh?

What if I had actually bribed a sadhu in order to find my own death?

As you can tell, this was a highly stressful existential moment in the former ashram, made alternately worse and better by the spiritual work that myself and those around me partake in. One minute I felt content with my fate – well, even if we’re squashed by elephants today, it’s happened where it’s supposed to happen, at the moment it’s supposed to occur – and the next minute completely terrified that my future children might never be spawned, that my parents and friends would never get a goodbye note, that my partner would be left mourning by himself in South America.

Yet we plunged deeper in the ashram, dodging piles of mostly-fresh elephant poop as we did so. Piles of poop that completely destroyed my rationalization that elephants probably didn’t pass through very frequently.

Talk about a head trip amongst the ghosts of ashrams past!

Every rustle and twig snap made my heart skip a beat. At one point, Heather came back from exploring a far corner with the quiet statement, “I think I heard something over there”, which nearly triggered a heart attack. Every three minutes or so, I would revise and update my Emergency Elephant Contingency Plan, which basically involved mapping a visual path to the nearest tiny space (since climbing trees were out of the question, since their Enraged Elephant Trunks can reach high spaces without issue).

Confronting various forms of potential death in the Beatles Ashram...

Confronting various forms of potential death in the Beatles Ashram…

When it was just us four, wandering through the ashram in the relative silence of the Himalayan foothills, we joked plenty about the possibility of an elephant showing up, maybe as a way to relieve the tension of the unknown. But after a certain point, I thought it best not to continue mentioning it by name – and therefore, we would just refer to it as the ‘E-Word’.

More tourists eventually showed up, which somehow relived the tension a bit. I’m not sure why – maybe the presence of other people made me feel less like we were trespassing in the elephants’ literal stomping ground (which we were), and more like we were just regular people at a regular, sanctioned tourist activity.

Even when we stumbled into the abandoned warehouse that had been decorated with all types of interesting graffiti and artwork, I knew that the E-Word could still ravage the building.

Exploring the surprise art gallery inside the ashram

Exploring the surprise art gallery inside the ashram

Enraged E-Words could do a lot of damage when they wanted to, I now knew.

On our way back to the front gates, Heather and I overheard a strange, rhythmic beeping coming from somewhere. There were scant tourists around us; nothing mechanical or even powered to be found within the confines of the ashram. So what was it?

It could only be the beeping of an enraged E-Word. Come to claim what was truly and finally his.

Luckily, the E-Word never found us or anyone else in the ashram that day. I feel very badly for the family of the visitor who was squashed to death, and I know that freak accidents occur all the time, whether during chance encounters between human and wildlife, mishaps in nature, society gone awry, and much more.

Despite the threat of the E-Word, we had a great time at the ashram. The weather was perfect, the sights were lush and beautiful, and the entire place held a calm and peaceful energy that even the E-Word couldn’t destroy.

And the acute threat of the E-Word held within it a powerful reminder, one that seemed wholly appropriate for a visit to India, to Rishikesh, to the ashram that inspired the White Album: we’re all going to die. We never know when. It’s the only sure thing in this life.

Sometimes that eventuality is easier to ignore, like when we’re safe inside our routines and familiar spaces.

And other times, that nervousness comes roaring to life unexpectedly, even when there are plenty of other things occurring in your daily life that might pose a greater risk of death (like traveling in traffic in India, for example).

The amount of impact that fear has in our life is entirely up to us. Wandering into an elephant’s den is a choice we make for ourselves (although it’s preferable to make that choice prior to entering a place known for wild e-words). But the way we let that fear affect us is within our control.

Even if it means developing lots of contingency plans, practicing calming breath, and just knowing that it’s all gonna be okay.

Beatles Art Gallery Rishikesh

The Rule of India: Do Whatever You Want

In a recent conversation with an Indian host about cultural norms and outright laws, I was trying to get a feel for ‘how things are done’ in India. I can’t remember what I asked her about – maybe it was about fashion, or street etiquette, or something to that effect – but I asked if it was illegal. Mostly joking of course, but I’ll never forget her response.

She looked at me with wide eyes and exclaimed, “It’s India! NOTHING is illegal!”

And she seems to be right. In fact, there don’t seem to be any laws about anything really.

Just on our drive back from Jaipur to Agra, I witnessed men urinating on the side of the road – opening up toward the traffic as opposed to hidden behind a bush or wall.

I saw a man bathing near an intersection, while five feet away street vendors sold fried snacks.

Men sat in plastic chairs talking over the morning newspaper, in the middle of the busy road.

Camels, cows, pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists all clamored for the right of way; oftentimes with pedestrians bumping into our car as they brazenly moved across multiple lanes of careening traffic.

Here we see a normal intersection in Jaipur.

Here we see a normal intersection in Jaipur.

And, too many times to count during the journey, cars went in the wrong direction on the highway.

I know, of course, there are certain laws of the land that are to abided by – for example, I’m sure general and prolonged nakedness is probably a big no-no, as well as any manner of sexual acts in public spaces; not to mention theft, murder, etc.

But bathing on the side of the highway? Totally fine. Leading your line of camels down the side of the highway, totally utilizing one full lane of the two-lane highway? Also cool. Driving down the wrong side of the highway for a full kilometer just to reach the U-turn? Don’t even worry about it.

Anything goes here, which makes the day to day a lot more interesting.

I probably should have caught on to this right from the get-go. When Kelli and I landed in New Delhi, we breezed through immigration, got our luggage in a timely fashion, and were one foot out of the airport when we realized we hadn’t turned in our customs forms. OOPS! We returned to the security point, where I approached the nearest guard.

I offered him my neatly-filled customs declaration form. “I forgot to turn this in,” I said, when his look became slowly disapproving.

The guard grimaced, looked from the paper to me to the paper again, and waved his hand at me. “Just keep this to yourself.”

Deeply confused but not wanting to press the issue, Kelli and I hurried from the airport, both of our customs forms still folded inside our passports.

Truly anything goes here; and it seems that the only rule one can abide is that of not following any of the rules.

Monkeying Around in India

When the wedding festivities came to a close after one bright, beautiful and curry-fueled week, Kelli and I decided to strike out on our own for a little sightseeing.

We only had a few days left together before her flight left for Chicago, so we decided to spend a night in Vrindavan – the birthplace of Lord Krishna.

We arrived via private taxi from Agra and spent that first evening temple-hopping. In Prem Mandir at dusk, we attracted so much attention that it felt like Tom Cruise in the early 90’s. I’ve never been approached so many times for a photo op in my entire life. I’m sure that swarm of Indian boys that approached as toward the end has a lot of awkward photos of us looking uncomfortable and trying to escape the mass.

Prem Mandir temple in Vrindavan...BEFORE the swarm!

Prem Mandir temple in Vrindavan…BEFORE the swarm!

The next morning in Vrindavan, we met our guide to view more temples throughout the winding alleyways. As soon as we left the car, the guide looked at both of us and said, “Please take off your glasses.”

Kelli had sunglasses on, and I had my regular seeing-eye glasses. I frowned. “Um, why?”

As we walked toward the narrow road that marked the beginning of our winding journey through Vrindavan, he pointed into the distance. A monkey scampered along the high wall of a building, and he said, “The monkeys will steal your glasses if you leave them on.”

I didn’t want to believe it – how could a monkey steal my glasses? That was absurd. But he explained that these monkeys will come from behind, snatch them from your actual face, and then wear them. In an attempt to mimic us.

And let’s be real – I didn’t buy these ugly grandpa glasses for a monkey to wear. I need these spectacles for myself. I tore them off my face and shoved them into my purse. And then zipped it for good measure.

What resulted what a very confused and blind visit through Vrindavan. Let’s be clear, India is generally chaotic. There is a usually a surplus of noise, bustle, people, motorcycles, stray cow poop and more at any given moment. Wandering through the streets with perfect vision is a task upon itself.

Doing it while blind? Totally different ballgame.

As I stumbled alongside Kelli and our guide, wondering about the distant blobs around me, I began to fear any non-descript movement above my head. Was it a monkey, coming to claim what was rightfully his? Would the monkey decide to instead latch onto my dreadlocks? (I have a lot of irrational fears about animals getting tangled in my locks, namely pigeons. And now monkeys.) Maybe it would see my shawl and try to strangle me with it? What if it leapt onto my shoulders with a battle cry and tried to involve me in one of its very vocal and public monkey fights?

What limit did these monkeys have?

I wasn’t allowed to put my glasses until we entered the temples themselves. This ended up being about 15% of the visit to Vrindavan. And even then, with my glasses on, I could see the monkeys swinging along the perimeter, eyeing us. Coveting things. Planning the steal.

Visiting a temple in Vrindavan...how many monkeys can you spot?

Visiting a temple in Vrindavan…how many monkeys can you spot?

Most of the monkeys here are fine, say the people. And I believe them. I really do.

But it just so happens that before I came to India, my father had only one piece of advice for me. When he began his warning, I figured it would be something about personal safety – you know, don’t get robbed, or watch out for shady characters, things like that.

But no.

His advice was: “Watch out for the monkeys.”

I laughed it off at the time, but his words rang loudly between my eyes as I wandered Vrindavan blind and jumpy, wondering if the monkey attack might come from behind, or if it would involve a monkey shriek and a dread pull, or if they might just abscond with my purse and shawl in an attempt to mimic my entire outfit.

Luckily, nothing was stolen, snatched, or otherwise monkey-robbed. Once we were back in the car, Kelli and I replaced our respective glasses with relief. Success.

But now, I’ve relocated to an ashram in Rishikesh, where I’ll be until early March. And on the first night of my stay here, I heard very strange squeaks and moans outside my 2nd story window.

It was only when I saw the bright red butt of a monkey pressed up against the glass did I realize my sordid affair with the primates has not yet come to an end.

Whenever I’m walking in the streets or around the ashram and I spot one of these guys, I press my fingers to my glasses and walk a little quicker – just in case.

Private Taxi: The New Mode of Travel

I wrote an article for my side project, The Astromaid Chronicles, about how my early 20’s were spent avoiding tour guides and staking my claim as a “real backpacker”.

Though I’ve made considerable progress in not pegging my self worth to whether or not I ‘look like a tourist’, the first part of this trip in India conjured some flashbacks to my early 20’s staunch rejection of ‘lazy tourism’ as a counterpoint to backpacking.

Let me explain. During our first week in India, Kelli and I decided to take a 3 day trip to Jaipur. Because temples, and sightseeing, and India! So we coordinated with the groom’s family, and an offer was made: why not take a private taxi who will accompany you for the duration of your trip? And, to boot, a private tour guide for the sightseeing day?

Kelli and I looked at each other. Neither of us are big spenders, and this suggestion seemed like something you might choose if you also had lots of 100 dollar bills to wipe your ass with. A private car, to ferry us from hotel to Jaipur to next hotel to All The Sights and back to hotel and to Agra again. It seemed a bit too convenient.

The offer was made: $115 for 3 days of private taxi’ing, plus a tour guide.

That’s $57.50 per person.

Which is like, you know, less than a cab ride in NYC sometimes. Or less than using Uber at peak hour.

So we thought about it. And then we thought of the traffic; and the language barrier; and the constant bustle and attention of being in public; and we thought of the fact that were ‘on vacation’; and we thought about all the research that remained to be done if we did this on our own.

And I thought about lazy tourists. And how maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be a little lazy with the tourism once in awhile. Maybe I don’t need to spend three hours at a bus station struggling to find an interpreter just to buy one measly bus ticket. Maybe I don’t have to throw myself into the hullabaloo of the streets just to figure out which rickshaw might be safest. Maybe I can just make a phone call and have it taken care of.

So we said YES. We’ll do it.

What resulted was a very comfortable, laidback, and secure trip to Jaipur and back, with fascinating tours, plenty of pit stops and a mysterious disappearance of funds once we hit the market to buy sarees.

Also spotted this in our Economical Luxury Tour of Jaipur: A REAL LIVE SNAKE, BEING CHARMED. I touched the snake afterward, very hesitantly.

Also spotted this in our Economical Luxury Tour of Jaipur: A REAL LIVE SNAKE, BEING CHARMED. I touched the snake afterward, very hesitantly.

In the time since this relatively economical side trip to Jaipur, the private taxi suggestion has been made MANY more times (and we’ve accepted once more, as well). I see it advertised not only in hotels but around town, in magazines, etc. I’ve realized that private taxi’ing between cities, for multiple days, is quite an available and accepted option here in India.

While it might be out of reach for the budget-iest of budget backpackers, it’s certainly an affordable option for most passive vagabonds, flashpackers, regular travelers, business tourists, vacationers and more.

I won’t be using this method of travel for all of my movement in India — my next leg to Rishikesh features a cheap bus fare, a 2 week stay in an ashram, a bus back to Delhi then a little bit of couchsurfing — but the brief brush with economical luxury was an unexpected touch that I really enjoyed.

Furthermore, I haven’t been anywhere else where multi-day private taxis were even presented as an option. Maybe that was just me assuming it would be out of price range — or maybe India is just one of those countries where, for whatever reason, mildly luxurious amenities fall within a passive vagabond’s budget.

The Unexpected First Impressions of India

I’ve been here under a week, but a few things have become readily apparent about travel through northern India so far.

I’ll admit, this leg of my trip has been a little swanky. This part is mostly dedicated to my friend’s wedding, and sometimes I feel more like a foreign dignitary than a visiting Ohio girl.

The second half of my trip will feature a stronger contrast — basic lodgings, time in ashrams, spiritual endeavors, etc — so I’m sure more observations will stem from that.

But for now? Here are a few things I’ve seen along the way:

Traffic is a Free-For-All: Of all the countries I’ve visited, capital cities are always a stunning example of the worst congestion, smog, chaos and more. And while no city has yet vested Cairo of its Worst City Driving Title, New Delhi (and India in general) is running a close second. Cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, and meandering humans create a cacophony of chaos in the streets, and ‘lane lines’ are mere suggestions at best. Some cars don’t even use the side mirrors, and instead tuck them in while driving. I’m not sure most people look before merging, and I haven’t seen one blinker in use yet. (Honking is the established replacement!)

Stray Dogs? More like Stray Cows: Cows are sacred in India, and killing them is technically illegal. However, there are plenty of cows that are left to wander and otherwise survive on their own. I’ve seen more stray cows here than dogs. As a new friend here explained to me, “It’s India–you have to fend for yourself. Even the cows.” And, to be clear, this is the FIRST time I’ve ever seen stray cows…ANYWHERE!

Stray Cows in India [Photo Credit: www.thehindu.com]

Stray Cows in India [Photo Credit: http://www.thehindu.com]

Luxury is Extra Luxurious: I don’t travel in luxury almost ever. But here, our accommodations are being provided by the groom’s family — part of the Indian tradition of hosting all of your guests and loved ones for the duration of the wedding. This has been an amazing, and very rare, experience for me. And I’ve noticed that what our fellow Indians request of the hotel staff tend to include nearly anything you could imagine — from washing the car while it’s in storage, to tending to random dietary needs, to organizing local tours and more. I’m not sure if this is how it’s done in the States, but I feel exceptionally pampered and cared for. And I’m not complaining!

Curry is Dangerous: As in, I could eat enough curry to kill a human being. And I almost killed myself via curry on the night of the friend party here in Agra. I literally didn’t EAT ANYTHING the next day because I had stuffed so much paneer down my throat. I couldn’t help it — I’m in India! God help me if I ever live here someday. I might explode!

 

Buffet of curries + Indian flat bread = 200% more sustenance than you really need.

 

Winter in Northern India is way better than Summer in Cusco: They warned us about the cold climes here in northern India. But all I’ve felt are perfect breezes and neutral air temps that make me want to writhe in the grass and bask in the glow of the weird decorative kale plants. Maybe it’s a fluke — or maybe it’s just an Ohio girl arriving via Midwestern Winter appreciating a totally fair climate and the chance to wear short sleeves finally (unlike a certain CUSCO *clears throat*).

We can wander around in loose-fitting shirts because it's winter in India!

We can wander around in loose-fitting shirts because it’s winter in India!

Tomorrow Kelli and I will be traveling to Jaipur, a city about 3 hours away, for a few days, where we hope to buy saris and purses and crazy pants and gifts, visit touristy stuff, and eat more curry. After that, we’ll be back to Agra, where the wedding celebrations will be in full swing!

Packing for The Hemispheres — from Peru to the Midwest to India

As you all might have gathered from my last post, I’m about to head out of Peru and toward the Far East for a period of time. A college friend shall marry — HURRAH! — and both Kelli and I will be jetting to India to witness the Hindu nuptials. As an added bonus, we’re getting to India right on Kelli’s birthday, which will be awesome but also probably super jet-laggy for her. Don’t worry, Kelli, we’re going to celebrate with strange alcohols and/or curries as soon as possible. Even if you’re asleep as I spoon feed birthday things into your mouth.

The fact that I live in Peru provided some travel planning friction. I researched flights in all manner of ways: from Columbia to India, from Panama to India, even from various points in the Midwest. All were expensive enough to make me think maybe I should defer my student loans again, or get another job, or just toss the whole trip altogether.

But then there was Chicago. Our flights rang in at about $800 round trip, Chicago to New Delhi. HIGH FIVE!

There still remained the small task of moving my physical being from PERU to CHICAGO in order to catch that flight, of course, but I took care of that with some accumulated airline points, so that leg of the trip ended up being only a couple hundred bucks extra.

So, all told? Less than $1,100 to get from the mountains of Peru to Chicago, where I’ll spend five lovely days with friends, then on to India for five weeks, and back again to Cusco.

Not. Bad.

The travel logistics weren’t the biggest part of the travel puzzle. In fact, the biggest piece of this international pie, so to speak, is something that I only realized recently.

It’s summer in Cusco right now. While that doesn’t mean much (like, hello, I wear alpaca booties everyday and drape heavy blankets over my lap while I work), it DOES mean that I can mostly survive without a proper winter jacket.

But, wait. It’s January right now. And in a few days, I”ll be arriving to *gulp* the Midwest. In WINTER. TO CHICAGO, NO LESS. WHERE THE LAKES FREEZE AND HIGHWAYS EXPLODE FROM ICE AND TEMPERATURES ARE NEGATIVE 50!

Some of that might be exaggerated, but the point remains: IT’S GONNA BE COLD.

And…yeah, that’s right…I don’t have a winter jacket.

Oversight City! OOPS! I left my jacket in Ohio, thinking I would be able to get by without it in Peru (which I am), forgetting entirely about my brief visit to Chicago in HIGH WINTER.

Even if I had thought ahead, which I clearly didn’t, I’m not sure I would have brought it anyway. Winter jackets are BULKY and take up PRECIOUS space in a backpack. When you live on such limited space, you gotta pare things down to the UTMOST necessities. I’m afraid I would have left the jacket behind anyway.

At any rate, I will be moving myself from the equivalent of early spring weather in Cusco to DASTARDLY COLD temps in Chicago to moderate-to-HOT climes in India.

HOW DOES A GIRL PACK FOR THIS CRAP?!

Sigh.

I’ll tell you how.

My experience in traveling Ryan Air through Europe taught me an important lesson about overweight luggage fees, and layering clothing to avoid this. When your overstuffed backpack rings in mere kilo or two overweight, you begin putting on your clothes. This can sometimes lead to a very sweaty, uncomfortable experience depending on what part of Europe you’re traveling.

But for me, right now? This will be the only way to survive.

Leg 1: Cusco to Lima = Normal, but carry-on will be bursting with various sweaters and leggings, waiting for their moment to shine.

Leg 2: Lima to Miami = Normal, maybe even a little warm once we get to Florida. Carry-on still straining. Extra leggings waiting to be put on, as well as the leg warmers, and the two pairs of gloves, and two extra sweaters.

Leg 3: Miami to Chicago = bundled up like a stiff yeti with dreadlocks! Carry-on luggage suddenly, magically, light as a feather.

Luckily, the area of India where I’ll be spending most of my time won’t be blazing hot, so I will have a use for all the Peruvian sweaters I’m carrying around like a street vendor.

On my way back through Chicago in March, I’ll have to do the quintuple-layer dance once more, but hey. If it means I don’t have to clog up my backpack with a full-time winter jacket, I’ll sacrifice joint movement for a lighter load.

Just be aware that if you see me somewhere in Chicago in the next few months and wave at me, dont expect me to wave back. I probably won’t be able to lift my arm higher than my shoulder. It’s just the dense layers of alpaca clothes prohibiting my movements — I’m not blowing you off, I swear. 

The Non-Negotiable Necessities of Travel

It’s that time of the year again – PACKING TIME. At the end of January, I’ll be hopping to Chicago for a few days before my friend Kelli and I head to India for a real life, legit Hindu wedding. (GET READY FOR UPDATES, PEOPLE!)

Preparations for this trip are a little different than normal.

First of all, I don’t have to cart along every single possession I own. I can leave the bulk of my belongings behind in Cusco, with my lovely partner who will watch over them while silently cursing me for leaving him to jet off to the Taj Mahal.

Secondly, almost as if to add insult to injury, I’m hijacking my partner’s brand new backpack. Why? Because it’s nicer than mine. And it’s smaller. And it looks better. And because we are slowly dissolving the boundaries of what is HIS and what is MINE. (No, seriously. I noticed today that I was wearing his zip-up jacket, and he was wearing MY new sweater. Couple, much??)

As I set to work moving things into their new home today, I stumbled upon a few objects that MUST be in my backpack at all times. These are non-negotiable backpack dwellers, the veritable mayor of Possessions Village. In fact, if I’m caught without these things, I might as well NOT TRAVEL.

Every traveler has these items. And for me, they’re as follows:

Copies of my passport, driver’s license, birth certificate, and itinerary. Now, before you get worried about someone conveniently stumbling upon these items and stealing my identity, hang on. None of these are notarized, so they wouldn’t serve as legal documents if someone were to actually try to PASS as me. Furthermore, these copies are on hand in the event that my PURSE gets stolen in transit. So that way, if I suddenly find myself in a bus station or airport with a freshly missing purse/wallet, I can at least utilize these documents to PROVE that I am who I am as I attempt to sort out the mess, board the flight, or otherwise try to convince a mean-looking official that things are fine and I’m not a criminal.

A shrimp from Nashville, TN. I picked this beaded shrimp up at the Nashville Museum of Art back in 2006 or thereabouts. It lived on my keychain then for approximately five years. The shrimp was then relegated to living on my bookcase in Ohio, but some sort of sorcery occurred between 2011 and 2013, because then I found it during a trip to visit my mother in Tennessee in the summer of 2013. She found it, mailed it to me, and now it comes with me everywhere. Not only has it been a fixture in my everyday belongings (key chain) since 2006, now it holds even more importance, since my boyfriend’s nickname is Camaron (Shrimp). I’ve been carrying Camaron with me for years, without knowing a real life Shrimp was waiting for me! (Did I manifest that without knowing?)

Beaded shrimp doesn’t look much like my boyfriend shrimp, but the meaning is there. 

A rosary from Mexico City, Mexico. In 2008, during a trip through Mexico City, I went to visit the Basilica of Guadalupe, one of the most important religious sites in the city. After visiting the grounds, I passed through the market nearby which was bursting with all sorts of religious relics and Catholic-themed souvenirs. I picked up a small, knotted rosary, which pays homage to my own Catholic roots, and the fact that we can all use a religious symbol on hand, especially when situations get tough. 

Knotty rosary from Mexico City

Emergency items: flashlight, sewing kit, first aid kit, and a hand mirror. If these things aren’t in my backpack, I’ll feel weird on the inside. I haven’t used most of these objects, but we all know the minute they AREN’T in my backpack is the second they’ll come in handy. I recommend always having these basic items on hand. Unexpected backpack rips can be trip-stoppers: this happened to me on my way to the airport in October 2014 – horrible long-term tear that came loose at the last second and made my backpack vulnerable to theft and even more damage with luggage handlers. I fixed that baby in 15 minutes flat. Maybe that’s also why I’m taking my boyfriend’s backpack this time; flashlights for unexpected power outages, or rummaging through luggage on dark buses/hostels; and hand mirrors for looking at yourself for the first time in two days after that horrendous journey on bus from southern Chile to northern Argentina.

Each trip has its own special packing list, but these items come with me no matter where I go, no matter the trip.

 What things do you guys take with you? Any special amulets or good luck charms? Any bizarre packing must-haves?